za'atar

You might be asking yourself, "Why do I need a recipe for za'atar?" Indeed, when it's undeniably easier (though not that much easier) to buy already-blended spices instead of mixing your own, I definitely need to justify the suggestion that you make your own. But the reason is simple: if you spend a couple extra minutes blending your own spices, you can tailor them perfectly to your own tastes.

Just imagine having a bespoke spice blend, perfectly designed just for you, that makes everything you sprinkle it on infinitely more delicious. The only thing standing between you and spice bliss is five minutes and a few ingredients, so what are you waiting for?

za'atar

Za'atar is a great first blend to experiment with because it's very straightforward. Spice blends are all about balance, nuance, tension, and harmony. The more elements you introduce, the more difficult it becomes to really thoughtfully and carefully adjust things without making it taste muddy and perplexing (unless that's the experience you're going for!)

While za'atar ingredients sometimes vary, the three ingredients in my blend are dried thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac. To figure out how to design your own za'atar, you just need to know a little about the flavor profile of each ingredient, so that you can bring the three in perfect balance with each other. The best way to understand this is to taste a little bit of each one with a teeny-tiny pinch of salt to help bring out the flavors. Even if you think you know what they taste like, taste each one just before mixing them, because dried herbs and spices age (and not all that well), different crops have different properties, and you just never know what you're going to get.

Thyme is the heart of za'atar and its namesake, so I like to think about building everything else around it (even if the thyme makes up a small part of the total ingredients in the end). Everything that you add to the thyme should be there to highlight its flavor. Think about what you like about thyme. Is it its fragrance or its earthiness? If you want to highlight its fragrance, you might want to add more sumac, and if you want to highlight its earthiness, you might want to add more sesame seeds. If you want to bring out the thyme's intense bitterness, add a little more sesame, but if you want to bring out some of its zesty qualities, you can use more sumac to make the mix tangier. I like having tension between all of these things, so I like to add equal parts of each. That way it doesn't end up tasting soapy or unpleasantly bitter.

I use za'atar in the following recipes, so feel free to visit the links below if you're looking for a way to incorporate za'atar into your cooking:

zesty lemon hummus, topped with za'atar

zesty lemon hummus, topped with za'atar

za’atar skillet

za’atar skillet

labneh, sprinkled with za'atar and olive oil

labneh, sprinkled with za'atar and olive oil

yogurt with za'atar and olive oil

yogurt with za'atar and olive oil

my sumac thyme cake is inspired by za'atar (though it doesn't include sesame seeds)

my sumac thyme cake is inspired by za'atar (though it doesn't include sesame seeds)

bean bulgur kebabs topped with za'atar

bean bulgur kebabs topped with za'atar

make-ahead vegetarian meze bento

make-ahead vegetarian meze bento

za'atar chicken shish kebab

za'atar chicken shish kebab

manakish za'atar

manakish za'atar

manakish za’atar variations

manakish za’atar variations

za'atar roast potatoes (with jajik chicken)

za'atar roast potatoes (with jajik chicken)

 

I've included my own personal recipe for za'atar (if you can even call it a recipe). Some people like to grind their za'atar into a fine powder, some people add oregano, marjoram, or savory, and too many other tasty ingredients to list, and some people use a very different ratio of ingredients than the one below. I've tried a lot of variations and I prefer a simple ratio of 1:1:1. Feel free to experiment to find your favorite za'atar.

My Favorite Za'atar 

1 part good quality dried thyme leaves (preferably green wild za’atar thyme)
1 part sesame seeds
1 part sumac *
Optional: salt to taste (e.g., when each part is equal to 1/4 cup, I use 1/2 teaspoon salt, for a total of 3/4 cup za'atar)

  • Toast the sesame seeds in a small pan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat immediately once they turn light golden.

  • Mix together the thyme, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt (if you're using it).

  • Optional: grind for 2 or 3 pulses in a spice grinder or for less than a minute in the mortar and pestle. Instead of turning the za'atar into a fine powder, simply crush and release the flavors a little.

* Sumac is a common ingredient in many of my recipes and is worth having in your pantry.

baharat : seven spice blend

Baharat: Lebanese Seven Spices

My recipe for beata't tdamata (eggs fried in tomato) calls for a mixture of black pepper, cumin, and paprika. This Lebanese baharat ("baharat" simply means spices in Arabic, but often refers to a spice blend) is just a slightly more complicated version of that combination. The added warm notes of coriander, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg give the blend a lovely well-rounded flavor. Think of it as Lebanese garam masala.

Baharat: Lebanese Seven Spices

A spice blend is the kind of thing that you make in a big batch and use over the course of a several months to a year (it will last closer to a year if stored in a sealed glass or stainless steel container). While it takes a small amount of effort up front, you'll reap the benefits for a long time. This spice blend works perfectly with beata't tdamata, hummus, labneh, falafel, potato chop, salad dressings, marinades, dry rubs, lentil soup, or anything else that needs a little extra something. If I'm cooking with this spice blend (as opposed to sprinkling it on something right before serving), I usually temper it in oil over low heat for about 1 to 2 minutes, which gives it a toastier flavor.

Baharat

Ratios

  • 12 parts ground black pepper

  • 12 parts ground paprika

  • 12 parts ground cumin seeds

  • 12 parts ground coriander seeds

  • 6 parts ground cloves

  • 2 parts ground cinnamon

  • 1 parts ground nutmeg

  • 1 part ground cardamom (green cardamom pods)

For just over 1 cup of spice blend

  • 1/4 cup ground black pepper (3 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons whole peppercorns)

  • 1/4 cup ground paprika

  • 1/4 cup ground cumin seeds (1/4 cup whole cumin seeds)

  • 1/4 cup ground coriander seeds (1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds)

  • 2 tablespoons ground cloves (2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons whole cloves)

  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (2 1/2 inch cinnamon stick)

  • 1 teaspoons ground nutmeg (1 small nutmeg)

  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom (8 to 9 cardamom pods)

If using ground spices, simply combine. If using whole spices, combine whole spices in a mortar and pestle, spice grinder, or very clean coffee grinder until powdered, then mix with the ground ones.

Baharat: Lebanese Seven Spices